Big Ten Geeks: What Just Happened?

KenPom’s game probabilities gave Northwestern just a five percent chance of winning at Wisconsin, and it didn’t like Penn State’s chances of winning at Ohio State much better (nine percent). In one of the unlikeliest nights of Big Ten basketball you’ll ever see, both road underdogs pulled the upset, an outcome that had a combined probability of less than half a percent.

How did this happen? Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!

For Penn State, the key was furious finish in which it scored 16 points on the final eight possessions of regulation. The Buckeyes had held a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining, and it seemed they had finally put away those pesky Nittany Lions. Instead, a barrage of threes and dunks brought the Lions roaring back, capped by a D.J. Newbill three to send the game to overtime.

Newbill wasn’t done. In the extra period, it was Newbill’s layup that brought Penn State within a point with 45 seconds left, setting up this final shot:

Not only did Newbill knock down a tough game winner, but he did it in a one-on-one situation against Aaron Craft, one of the nation’s top perimeter defenders. Newbill finished with 25 points in a performance reminiscent of Jermaine Marshall’s single-handed take-down of Michigan a year ago.

With its fifth loss in six games, Ohio State is left searching for answers. Everybody knew the Buckeyes had a mediocre offense, but even that stellar defense has shown major cracks as of late. The change in Ohio State’s fate is striking; less than a month ago, the Buckeyes were the #1 team in the nation by KenPom and arguably outplayed Michigan State in East Lansing. Now, it’s an open question as to whether Ohio State will even make the NCAA tournament.

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In Wednesday’s other unlikely result, Wisconsin became the latest victim of Northwestern’s defensive buzzsaw. The Badgers had a nightmarish night from the field, shooting 30 percent on twos and 21 percent on threes. The resulting 30.7 effective field goal percentage is the lowest posted by Wisconsin in eight years, and it was mostly due to awful jump-shooting:

WISCONSIN % of Shots FG% % of Shots Blocked Unblocked FG%
At Rim 28% 44% 6% 47%
2pt Jumpers 30% 18% 12% 20%
3pt Shots 42% 21% 0% 21%

Northwestern did a solid job of keeping the Badgers out of the paint, but this was mostly a case of Wisconsin missing perimeter shots. Still, give the Wildcats credit for making things difficult for the Badgers’ shooters.

As is usually case in an unlikely upset, it took both an off night for the favorite and an unusually hot-shooting night for the underdog. Northwestern shot 44 percent on threes, including a make from Alex Olah that raised his career three-point shooting percentage to 21 percent. This was just one of those nights, and I don’t believe it means Wisconsin is suddenly a bad team.

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On Thursday night, Nebraska snuffed out most of Indiana’s remaining NCAA tournament hopes with a turnover-riddled victory. The Hoosiers turned it over on nearly a third of their possessions, a staggering figure that negated Indiana’s good night from the field and on the glass. It also didn’t hurt that the Huskers were red-hot from three, hitting 42 percent of their many attempts.

It has become clear that this is a solid Nebraska team, one that is clearly better than the last-place finisher most predicted. The Huskers aren’t great at anything, but they play hard and do just enough in enough areas to beat mediocre teams. Unfortunately, that is what Indiana is right now despite an all-conference type season from Yogi Ferrell. The sophomore point guard finished with 14 points, five assists, and just one turnover. You read that right–Indiana’s point guard, the guy facilitating the offense, had one turnover on a night when the team committed 19 miscues. Freshmen Noah Vonleh and Stanford Robinson were the main offenders, combining for eight turnovers and just one assist.

To some extent, turnovers are just part of the deal when you decide to give major minutes to freshmen. Indiana has several freshmen playing major roles in its offense, and when that is combined with Tom Crean’s attack-the-hoop approach, a major turnover problem isn’t all that surprising. It’s too bad, as these Hoosiers rebound and defend well enough that they should otherwise be a very solid team. As it is, Indiana should hope to show progress, make the NIT, and convince Vonleh to stick around for another season.

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Breaking the theme that was set on Wednesday, Michigan had little trouble taking care of Purdue in Ann Arbor. It was a bit of a strange night for the Wolverines, as they turned it over on 24 percent of their trips. Prior to this game, Michigan’s season-high turnover rate was 18 percent, so this was certainly an outlier. It ended up not mattering, as the Wolverines had an unreal night shooting the ball (64 percent on twos, 54 percent on threes).

If it wasn’t clear already (like we said it was), the results of the past two nights made it obvious that the Big Ten is a two team race. Michigan remains the favorite, though a potentially tricky game at Indiana this Sunday could change that.

Michigan State, meanwhile, will play the rare February non-conference game against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. This game is mere window dressing for the Spartans, as the result won’t have much of an impact on anything at this point. If there were ever a game to get guys healthy or try out something in a game setting, this is it.

Back in the conference, the most interesting matchup might be Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, as both teams look to get right after a rough stretch. I’ll also be curious to see what happens as Northwestern visits Minnesota. The Wildcats have looked awful against pressure defense late in their upset wins, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the Gophers’ constant pressure. The Super Bowl may have the nation’s attention, but Big Ten basketball offers plenty of intrigue this weekend.

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theotherbigone on 1/31/2014 @ 1:43pm EST Said:

Aaron Craft got a big head and now he can’t carry it around and play basketball at the same time.